Libya war planes launch airstrikes on steel plant, port as UN postpones talks

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Published Monday, January 5, 2015

Updated at 3:03 pm (GMT +2): Forces loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government on Sunday launched airstrikes on the country's biggest steel plant at Misrata, officials said, hitting the western city allied to a rival group for a second consecutive day.

Turkish Airlines, the only foreign airline still flying to Libya, cancelled a flight from Misrata to Istanbul, according to the website of Istanbul airport. The airline could not be immediately reached for comment.

Four years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule in 2011, Libya continues to struggle with instability as two rival administrations compete for power and warring armed factions skirmish for control of territory across the North African state.

Western military intervention in Libya in 2011 brought with it an influx of weapons, with Gulf Arab states also supplying arms to rebels, many of whom now refuse to hand them over to the internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.

Last August, Thani and his cabinet were forced to leave Tripoli for the east when militants from Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) seized the capital. The new rulers of Tripoli have set up their own administration, the General National Congress (GNC), which has not been recognized by the United Nations and world powers.

Mohammed Abdulmalik al-Faqih, chairman of the Libyan Iron and Steel Company (Lisco), said war planes hit the plant's perimeter and a wall near a company training center at around 1100 local time.

A state news agency loyal to the rival Tripoli government said a plane had also tried attacking an air force academy near the civilian airport but fired its rockets early after coming under anti-aircraft fire, missing its targets.

A spokesman for forces allied to Thinni confirmed air strikes on Misrata, without giving details.

Meanwhile, also on Sunday, governmental forces launched an airstrike on an oil tanker in the eastern port of Derna, killing two crewmen and drawing condemnation from Greece.

A spokesman for the Libyan government's armed forces said the tanker was hit on Sunday after it refused to stop for checks on its cargo which had raised suspicions.

But the Greek government said the vessel was plying a longstanding route under contract to the Libyan state oil company and demanded prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of the Greek and Romanian crewmen.

Greek coastguards said the Liberian-registered Araevo vessel was at anchor two nautical miles off Derna and laden with 1,600 tons of crude oil when it was hit.

Libyan armed forces spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mesmari said the tanker had turned off its lights "in preparation for entering the port... and because of this it and its cargo were considered suspicious".

But the Greek government condemned what it called a "cowardly and unprovoked" attack on a vessel plying a regular service between two Libyan ports.

"According to the shipping firm, the vessel was operating under contract to the Libyan National Corporation and had been working the Marsa al-Brega to Derna route for many years without problem," a government statement said.

"This criminal act has caused the deaths of two crew members -- one Greek and one Romanian -- and wounded two others," it said.

"The Greek government will take all necessary steps with the Libyan authorities -- in spite of the unstable situation -- to help investigate the circumstances of this tragic event and identify and punish the attack's perpetrators."

Two other members of the ship's crew of 26 were wounded in the air strike.

The two incidents came one day after militants who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group, which has declared an ‘Islamic State’ in large swathes of land it captured in Iraq and Syria, killed 14 soldiers in south Libya.

A website called 'The Islamic State in Libya' claimed responsibility for killing 12 soldiers at the same location and posted a picture purporting to show the execution of one soldier.

Since last August, there have been attempts by ISIS to open a branch in Libya at Derna, an eastern hot spot for extremist Islamists.

Western powers, who backed the military uprising against Gaddafi in Libya, fear that extremist Islamists, who they armed and trained during the uprising, are seeking to exploit a power vacuum in the oil-producing nation.

UN peace talks postponed

News of Sunday’s airstrikes came as the United Nations postponed peace talks between Libya's warring factions which had been scheduled for Monday without announcing a new date.

The talks had originally been slated for December 9 but have been repeatedly delayed as fighting has intensified between the beleaguered internationally recognized government and militias that controls the capital and Libya's second and third largest cities.

UN mission spokesman Samir Ghattas told Libyan media late Sunday that efforts were continuing to get the talks back on track.

UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon in Libya chaired a first round of talks between rival lawmakers in the oasis town of Ghadames in September.

But his efforts to convene a new round of talks and to broker parallel negotiations between the warring parties have so far failed, despite a warning by the UN Security Council in October that it would impose sanctions on any party that undermined the process.

The internationally recognized parliament voted last week not to attend any negotiations if the rival legislature in Tripoli was invited.

Libya's violence has drawn strong condemnation from both the UN and European Union, and rights group Amnesty International has accused several factions of war crimes.

According to Amnesty, militants in the west showed “an utter disregard” for civilian casualties and accused them of indiscriminately lobbing artillery fire into crowded civilian neighborhoods, damaging homes and hospitals.

The United Nations said that since fighting intensified in May, hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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